Sharodi Saikia: Sattriya is an enduring tradition
- Lalitha Venkat
December 14, 2008
Sattriya is the traditional dance of Vaishnava Sattras (monasteries) in Assam. Sharodi Saikia, who learnt various dance forms in her formative years, found her calling in Sattriya. Her first lesson was in Manipuri dance under guru Rathin Singh, then she learnt Kathak in her teens. When her father took her to guru Raseswar Saikia Barbayan of Kamalabari Sattra, she fell in love with the dance style and for more than 35 years she has been performing and spreading the beauty of Sattriya dance. Saikia is also a talented sitar player. She runs a school of Sattriya dance called Rangayan in Guwahati. In addition to her writings on the Sattriya tradition, brought out by many renowned publications, Saikia has also penned a number of books, scholarly publications on education, women and other development issues.
She is the first person to develop and present a distinctive repertoire for solo performance of Sattriya dance, which is usually performed by a group of monks in the Sattras. From costume and adornments, music and presentation, stage craft and choreography, building a repertoire for solo performance, improving artistic expressions, Saikia has done it all with brilliance.
You learnt Manipuri and Kathak before moving on to Sattriya. What made you concentrate only on Sattriya?
Sattriya dances form a large corpus of dance items performed during daily and occasional prayer sessions in the Sattra institutions of Assam. The dance form remained confined to the Sattras for more than five hundred years and as such very few outside the monasteries of Sattra got the opportunity to learn it. It was during the mid-fifties of the last century that it was presented for the first time to the intelligentia and the dance world in Delhi.
It was in mid-sixties that late Raseswar Saikia, a senior 'Borbayan' and monk of Kamalabari Sattra (that can boast of the richest treasure of dances) came out of the Sattra and started teaching at Guwahati. He happened to be a friend of my father, who told my mother that when I grow up, he would initiate me into this dance form. I started my dance lessons with Manipuri when I was just five-six years old and then in my early teens shifted to Kathak which I enjoyed doing most. Till date it remains my great love; I however did not give up Manipuri. At sixteen, after my school final, my father brought me to Guwahati to learn Sattriya from Raseswar Saikia Borbayan. I found the dance very tough but challenging and also discovered that I happened to be one of the very few to be learning it at that time. My guru wanted me to popularize it and so even before I could actually grasp the nuances of the form I was made to perform on stage. It gave me instant fame but my parents did not let me bank on it and encouraged me to take the promotion of the dance form seriously as a commitment. My guru wanted me to stop practising Kathak and Manipuri and concentrate on Sattriya only.
So it was not by choice that I took to Sattriya, but out of parental wish in the beginning and later out of commitment for this beautiful form that was not known even to the people of Assam, let alone the country, till the eighties.
The Krishna theme is predominant in Sattriya. What is the role of Ramayana as a performance theme in Sattriya?
You're absolutely correct in observing that the Krishna theme is predominant in Sattriya. However, it does not undermine the fact that Rama is equally revered; in fact Krishna and Rama are inalienable in the Sattriya culture. Out of the twelve Ankiya Naats composed by Shrimanta Sankardev, the fountainhead of Bhakti movement in the region, and his principal disciple Shri Shri Madhavdev, one play 'Ram Vijay' revolves around Sita's swayamvara and subjugation of Parasuram by Rama. Out of the many plays scripted in the same style by later composers, quite a few are on Rama's life and deeds. It is, however, a fact that out of about two hundred 'Borgeets,' the devotional songs composed by the two saints, only one is devoted to Rama. Many Borgeets got burnt during Sankardeva's lifetime but he did not compose them again. If some of these were on Rama's life or deeds, it is not known for sure. In the Naam Ghosha, the essence of Bhakti, composed by Madhavdev, many verses are on Rama; in fact chanting of Kirtans dealing with Krishna begins with chants on Rama.
The 'Adikanda' and 'Uttarakanda' of Madhav Kandoli's (a 14th century poet) Assamese Ramayana was not to be found. Shrimanta Sankardev and Shri Shri Madhavdev composed these two chapters.
The lyrics of the Ankiya Naat 'Ram Vijay,' couplets from Shri Shri Madhavdeva's Naam Ghosha, the Borgeet mentioned above, and themes of Madhav Kandoli's Ramayana are used in Sattriya dances, in addition to the Ankiya Naat 'Ram Vijay' and also Naats composed on Rama by later apostles, being performed as a play where dance and music form integral parts of the performance.
Sattriya dance is mainly focused on the bhakti aspect. Are there any works on contemporary themes in Sattriya?
Sattriya dance depicts the nine types of Bhakti through its presentation; 'Rasa Nispatti' of the performance is also in Bhakti only. As such the focus is on its depiction primarily through Sahitya composed by the two saints. However, in the recent times, though very, very few in number, attempts have been made to present contemporary themes through the dance form. I myself have participated along with a number of established dancers of all the 'classical' dance forms of the country in a choreographic work 'Vande Mataram' directed by Pratibha Prahlad last year (and also recently this year). This, however, does not mean incorporation of contemporary themes in Sattriya in general.
What were the challenges faced when this monastic dance form had to be packaged for the proscenium?
It has been challenges galore! The dance form that is ritualistic and has been preserved, practised and cherished by the monks as a path to salvation remained in the Sattras for more then five centuries. To bring it out for presentation for the audience outside meant teaching the form to females, frame a curriculum for it, keeping the essence of the form in tact, adapting the attire for female physique, enriching the music with addition of musical instruments, searching into the inner depth of the Sahitya, creating a new set of rasikas, and critics, seeking official patronage etc. etc. My 'Adhyapak' (guru) late Raseswar Saikia Borbayan, was the first martyr of the process - he got expelled from the Sattra for teaching females outside the Sattra. Things are not the same any more, many monks are teaching females outside, and also in the vicinity of Sattras nowadays.
In your presentation for the 2006 Natya Kala Conference, you asked "for guidance to 'embellish' the form for stage and the senior gurus present at Krishna Gana Sabha were of the firm opinion that the dance should remain as true to the original as possible." Your comments.
The 'embellishment' part discussed about was not for the style, grammar or music of the dance form but the presentation aspect on proscenium. It has, since the beginning, been maintained that the essence of the dance form must remain intact, and no departure from the Angika, music, or the Abhinaya style be encouraged as Sattriya is an enduring tradition. The presentation on the proscenium, however, seems to need proper handling, as one single item, if done in the original Sattra style, may take hours to be completed. Moreover, in Sattras most of the dances are performed in groups by young boys in front of the Guru-Asan and audience on either side, in attires not suitable for female dancers. Musical instruments are confined to khol and cymbals in the Sattra nowadays, due to the unavailability of string instruments used centuries back. Advise was sought on these aspects only for presentation on secular stage.
"Sattriya is not exactly a reconstruction, because it is an existing tradition." Is that tradition changing and expanding? You have spoken on the need for forming of a regular Margam of performance in Sattriya within the traditional framework. How far has that developed?
The tradition remains almost as it is in the Sattra institutions. Oral tradition of teaching-learning in a Gurukul system still prevails, dance is always a part of the Naimittwik Prasangas offered to God in the Kirtan Ghar in front of the 'Bhagavat' placed on a seven-storeyed wooden 'Asan' instead of the usual idol, audience or no audience. It is performed with utmost devotion, not exploring the 'art' part of it. Expansion, to some extent, has been seen over the decades; these encompass use of songs, plays, talas, ragas composed by later apostles, performances by the monks outside the Sattra, etc. Few additions-alterations have been seen on stage too. For example, out of the three components of items like 'Chali' and 'Jumura,' the second one is built around a song to which Abhinaya is not done in the Sattra, but has been added now, taking elements from the Abhinaya-based Ojapali repertoire. Sahitya from the vast treasure of the two saints used in prayer sessions only in the rituals are now being used in the dance items; exploring 'bhava' rasa etc. in these are more pronounced now.
The necessity of the Margam has been felt for a long time but no consensus has yet been arrived at. I personally had proposed a Margam in a seminar organized by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2002 at Rabindra Bhavan, Guwahati. It consists of 6 - 7 components and takes care of the representation of the large variety of dance items, the characteristic features of the dance form, duration of a recital on stage to suit the interest span of the contemporary audience, interest / prowess of the individual dancer etc. Taking elements from the common components of various dance items, the proposed Margam arranges the sequence as follows :
• Vandana (Based on Sanskrit shlokas from Ankiya Naats or Naam Ghosha eulogizing Krishna or Rama)
• Ramdani (Initial Nritt component of almost all Sattriya items)
• Geetor Nach (Set to a song with Nritt interspersed; second part of almost all items)
• Shlokar Nach (Set to shloka-like mnemonics of khol, taken from a number of items)
• Bhongir Nach / Ozapali ( Item predominantly based on Abhinaya with the dancer donning various characters from an episode of Bhagavat or Ankiya Naat)
• Mela Nach (An elaborate Nritt component - last part of two major repertoires - Chali and Jumura).
In addition, an optional component is the 'Ragar Nach' based on a raga as seen in the Sutradhari repertoire. My students and I follow this Margam in solo as well as group recitals. A few of the items of this sequence is performed by almost all other dancers.
You have developed a solo repertoire for Sattriya dance. What were the challenges? What other developments have you evolved pertaining to costumes, music and choreography?
While developing the above mentioned Margam, the main challenge was not only to keep the original Margam of every dance item (Sattriya is a large corpus of dance items) intact but also to incorporate components of other items within a limited time frame. I tried to study almost all the dance items, take out the common components and make a garland out of it. Squeezing the items, that can take hours if presented in toto, into a framework of 11/2 - 2 hours was challenging too. Another challenge was to incorporate the characteristic features of the dance form and to make it representative of the entire form without losing the essence or flavour of it. I tried to make it as flexible as possible for accommodating dancers of various levels of potentials, and also to incorporate Sahitya of their own choice. Flexibility is also provided in the Nritt components so that the dancer can pick from the vast treasure, and can adopt the masculine or feminine style as per convenience. Bhongir Nach / Ozapali takes care of the dancer's acting prowess.
As regards costumes, I designed the female attire thirty five years back keeping the original female costume donned by male monks in the Sattra for dances like 'Chali' almost the same. Only addition was the 'chadar' for covering the upper part of the body and also the style of using the head-cover. Texture is now strictly adhered to Assam silk and the jewellery - the typically Assamese ones. For girls doing masculine numbers, I designed a costume that most of the dancers use today with some changes here and there.
Regarding music, help and guidance are received from musicians like Dr. K D Goswami, eminent scholar and the recipient of the prestigious Sankardev Award, Dr. J Mahanta, another eminent scholar-dancer-musician, noted musician M Sarma, to bring into the fore the Sattriya ragas that can be used for different components, different moods and actions. Musical instruments added to khol and cymbals (of various sizes) in the last few decades are flute and violin. I have used sarod successfully in a few performances lately.
Choreography is comparatively a new concept in Sattriya. I have choreographed group performances of various Nritt components, Vandana etc. and also directed a few ballets like Dashavatar, Kaliya Daman, Parijan Haran, Krishna Lila etc. in the Ankiya Bhaona style.
What will conferences like Natya Kala Conference serve after it's over?
I suppose it works at three distinct levels; it builds or adds to the knowledge base, strengthens the art-society interface, and opens up new vistas for experimentation, collaboration and understanding of varied dance forms. The reverberation of the performances, interactions and discussions cuts across the boundaries of the dance forms and helps generate new ideas, new concepts after the conference is over, for the next year or years to come.
Your comments on the Chennai December season.
I was introduced to it by noted Bharatanatyam exponent and dance writer Nandini Ramani four years back when I was invited by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for a lec-dem. Since then, I have come here every season. Every time it's a pilgrimage for me and it feels great to be a part of this great meeting place of artistes, gurus, rasikas and dance writers. In our region, we almost starve as regards enjoying of dance festivals, so it gives me immense pleasure in hopping from one Sabha to the other like a thirsty 'Chalak' bird encountering the rainfall after a long drought.
One thing, however, crosses the mind; the turn out of audience sometimes is really very small, leaving one wondering why it is so.